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Lessons from Bonhoeffer, Part 1

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2022 14 Jan

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis's title character warns his pupil, "The young atheist cannot be too careful about what he reads." The caution is well-taken by anyone whose beliefs are settled, including the young Christian.

Years ago, unaware of that warning, I picked up a book that upturned everything I thought I knew about being a Christian. It was Dietrich Bonheoffer's classic work The Cost of Discipleship.

Baptized and catechized in the Catholic Church, matriculating in parochial schools, and regularly attending mass, going to confession, and receiving communion, I believed that being a good Christian meant belonging to the "right" Christian organization, embracing its distinctive doctrines, and following its religious practices. Even during a period of spiritual drift in college and early marriage I considered myself a Christian, if a lapsed one, since, to my thinking, Christianity was foremost a matter of religious belief and association.

Some years later, a first-time encounter with the revealed Word of Scripture prompted me to re-evaluate the faith I had set on the shelf. But ignoring the wealth of millennia of Christian thought and tradition, and the counsel of more seasoned Christians, I left Catholicism and institutional religion for a "have-it-your-way" Christianity, customized according to my private and unaided understandings.

Retained in my fast food faith was the notion that following Christ out of the sanctuary and into the world, putting his teachings into practice, was optional. Jesus was my Savior and my Lord, but only over the sacred spaces, I had allotted him. Then, on an incautious day, I began reading The Cost of Discipleship.

An unsettling read

The salvo on my settled beliefs began with the opening line: "Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church." My interest was piqued. In the following paragraphs, I learned that "cheap grace" was "Christianity without discipleship"—which, more plainly stated, is forgiveness without repentance, salvation without sanctification, deliverance from the judgment of sin without the desire to be delivered from the habit of sin. It hit uncomfortably home.

Standing opposed to the Christ-less religion of cheap grace, was "costly grace." Costly grace is Christ-filled Christianity established on the Cross of redemption and the Yoke of discipleship. It is not a one-time spiritual experience, 12-step recovery program, or endless flurry of church activities, but the life-long process of taking up our cross and putting on His yoke. My settled beliefs began unraveling.

A few pages later, Bonhoeffer's koan-like phrase "only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes," set my head aswirl. While I thought it unremarkable that obedience, true and uncoerced, requires belief, the suggestion that true belief, or faith, requires obedience was counterintuitive, if not misguided. Or was it?   Continue reading here.